Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Nonprofit Fundraising in an Age of Uncertainty

Nonprofit Fundraising in an Age of Uncertainty

Much has been written over the years about what nonprofits should do to fundraise in tough times. Fundraising pioneer Mal Warwick famously advised nonprofits during the 2008-09 recession to reassess the whole ball of wax. At the time, that seemed like good advice for nonprofits struggling to cope with an unprecedented economic collapse that had seriously impaired the day-to-day business of fundraising.

As we face the triple challenge of a pandemic, its economic impacts on communities and nonprofit institutions, and disruptions in donor activity, the situation in 2020 feels similar and yet more complex.

We've been here before, and now is a good time to reach back to what we've learned in past crises while also taking steps to adapt to newer challenges. The bottom line is that your donor community cares about your mission and can be an active partner in your efforts in this time of uncertainty. Here are five things nonprofit development professionals can do to make it through the pandemic and emerge with a crisis-tested approach to fundraising that positions them to succeed on the other side.

Focus on cultivation and stewardship. While giving is down and face-to-face donor engagement efforts have been limited by shelter-in-place mandates and lockdowns, now is the time for nonprofits to redouble their efforts to stay connected with their supporters. Embracing a "cultivational" mode of communications will bring you and your donors closer and enable you to showcase your role and value to the community. In uncertain times, people yearn for deeper connections, whether its to their neighbors, local businesses, or civic leaders. Your role is to be there with and for them and to help them figure out the way forward.

Even when you're not directly asking your donors for financial support, there are several things you can and should do:

  • Thank them for their past support
  • Share stories about your work
  • Provide updates about your budget needs

When communicating with donors, be sure to use the full range of storytelling materials available to you, including testimonials, photos, video clips, social media, and more. Get your constituents' voices involved in telling their own stories, which of course are connected to your story.

Strengthen your case for giving. During these uncertain times, it's important to re-assess how you're positioning your nonprofit in terms of mission, values, and programs. What can you do to sharpen your messaging to address the reality of high unemployment, economic hardship, public health risk, anti-racism, and other societal challenges? Whether it is updates of your website, postings to your social media channels, or crafting a new fundraising appeal, make sure your donors understand both the urgent need for your services during these challenging times and the concrete steps you are taking to increase your effectiveness for the people you serve.

Alan Cantor captured the essence of this idea in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, writing: "In the coming weeks and months, successful requests for charitable donations will need to be embedded in a larger expression of mutual support, empathy, and solidarity."

Embrace contact-free fundraising events. Perhaps nothing has stressed out nonprofit leaders more than the reality of having to cancel in-person fundraising events due to coronavirus-related shutdowns. But because a huge amount of annual nonprofit revenue depends on such events, nonprofits have adapted quickly by converting many such events into virtual alternatives.

Even though quarantines and lockdowns are slowly being lifted, many people continue to feel like they need to avoid large social gatherings, and that's likely to impact organizations well into the new year.

High on most nonprofits' priority list is learning how to produce virtual fundraising events using video meeting platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, and others. Nonprofits are also turning to platforms such as Facebook Live to host real-time events. While not as intimate as in-person events, virtual events, when done well, can effectively blend an auction, raffle, video contest, concert, or other activity with your basic fundraising appeal. Check out these recent TechSoup articles on Producing a Virtual Nonprofit Event and Raising Money Using Zoom for additional tips and resources.

In addition to virtual events, many nonprofits are organizing local contact-free fundraising events for their supporters. These can include walk/run-a-thons where participants collect pledges and complete the physical challenge at home, or non-physical activity challenges such as a talent competition, an art contest, a photo competition, or an essay challenge. And don't be afraid to ask your donor/supporter community for help — now is the perfect time to tap into their creativity.

Get your digital house in order. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for many nonprofits that had neglected their digital house. If your organization is one of those, here are a few things you can do.

  • Take a long, hard look at your website to see what needs to be refreshed, whether its your basic messaging or answers to questions people might have about the services you are providing (or not) during the pandemic.
  • If you need help tuning up your website, check out TechSoup's Website Services for help with its design, things you can do to attract more supporters and amplify your fundraising efforts, and deepen your impact.
  • Review the donation pages on your site and make sure they make the strongest case possible for people to give to your organization. Are the giving levels offered on the page the right ones in a time of economic hardship? Do you need to add a lower giving level or two? Do you offer a monthly giving option? Is it clearly visible?
  • Review your social media management practices to make sure they are working to keep your organization current with trends in and news from the field. Is it time to change the frequency and/or content of your posts? 
  • Review your email messaging to determine what needs to be refreshed.

By getting a handle on your digital communication capacity and what is and isn't working, you'll be in a better position to truly engage your donors in the critical work you do.

Empower your supporters to help you. During these uncertain times, it's imperative you think strategically about what different groups of donors need and expect from you. You might, for example, want to target most of your outreach to your mid-level and major donors, who often have more capacity to give. Think about what kind of messaging will most inspire different kinds of donors.

You should also encourage your supporters and donors to help out by setting up Facebook Fundraising campaigns. Many of your supporters will already be familiar with the donation tools available on Facebook. To help them get started, provide sample content and images they can use to promote their campaigns.

In times of crisis, it's not uncommon for people who want to make a difference in their community to step forward. In these challenging times, supporting a nonprofit can be a source of both inspiration and empowerment. Reaching these new supporters can involve outreach to your volunteer networks, trading mailing lists with other like-minded organizations, increasing your activity on social media, reaching out to lapsed donors, and/or spending money on a social media advertising campaign. However you do it, it's up to you to find them and persuade them to support you, even if it's at a low gift level. Good luck!

Further Reading

Michael Stein works as a freelance consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and other civic organizations, with a focus on digital engagement, online fundraising, social media presence, and email and website usability.